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The man who used to live across the street from me was revered for his work. No one actually envied him for his lifestyle, but he was a great man nonetheless. He was a professional--the type of man who never retired, not because he didn't have the ability to (in fact, I heard his pension was rather impressive), but because he actually enjoyed his work and felt a greater reward from the experiences he gained than from the compensation. Janitors aren't usually recognized for their jobs, but I would venture to say that Mr. Claybourne was somewhat of an icon to us.
The first time I encountered Claybourne I was only eleven, and had been in the middle of an afternoon fight with my parents. Headstrong and, in hindsight, extremely disrespectful, I had once again managed to p*** off my English teacher to the point where she had to call my house, and I knew I would never hear the end of it. The resulting fight ended with me sitting on my porch, as always, crying hot tears of anger and resentment because I knew (or thought I knew) that I wasn't at fault. My parents weren't going to let me in—they never let me back in after a fight—so I sat with my head buried in my arms, staring down into the pavement, and wallowed in the injustice of it until I felt a hand on my shoulder. Thinking it was my mother come to console me, I tactfully pretended not to notice the contact, but the voice that proceeded was impossible to ignore.
"Why are you crying? It's only five o'clock, children aren't supposed to cry before dinner, you should know that!" said a man’s voice.
I didn't want to look up, but I was so startled by the voice, gentle as it was, that I glanced with one eye from under my forearm to reveal an awkward old man who I later identified as Mr. Claybourne (as a child, it wasn't typical of me to ask or even care about people's names). He towered over me, not because of his height, but because he had a humped-back that caused him to arch over my slumped head. His hair was brittle and thin and could not cover the liver spots on his head, and the skin on his face drooped like a beagle, contrasting humorously with his wide grin.
"My parents yelled at me because my stupid teacher told them I was being 'insubordinate.' She thinks she knows everything because she uses big words like that, but she doesn't listen to me at all. I hate school."
"Well who needs school anyway! I didn't go to school and I turned out just fine!" At the time, I didn't catch that implied sarcasm; old people's jokes were never funny to me.
"Really? What do you do?"
"I'm a janitor." He said this with a bravado that at first got my interest, as though he had said he was a jet pilot, but once it had actually processed I was a little disappointed.
"But I don't want to be a janitor. I don't want to clean for the rest of my life. I don’t even like cleaning my room when my mom tells me."
At this he let out a deep laugh that annoyed me so I let my vision slide back under my arm and into the porch pavement. I think he noticed my lack of enthusiasm at his occupation, but he retained his gentility. "Who wouldn't want to be a janitor? Why, I've been a janitor for almost forty seven years now and I still love it! You just don't know about all the perks in my job."
"Perks?" I tried not to sound overly-interested, but I have to admit that he had successfully piqued my curiosity.
"Of course! You wouldn't believe all of the things a janitor gets to see behind-the-scenes. No one ever cares if the janitor is around, people just go on acting like themselves even when I'm inches away from them! Years ago I used to work at Chicago Stadium for the Bulls, back when Michael Jordan was still playing, I assume you know who he is. During the games, I used to sneak into the tunnel and watch. After every game, the players would run through and high-five me. After a couple of months, they all knew who I was and treated me like part of the team. Even MJ."
My head wasn't in my lap anymore. I’d always been a huge fan of Michael Jordan, having grown up in the southern suburbs of Illinois.
"And I was in the locker room after they beat Portland in the finals, can you imagine that? I remember running ahead of the team when they were leaving the court and cheering with them. I got to drink champagne and they even let me hold the trophy! Michael almost stopped breathing from the excitement; I had to help him off the floor and he was crying his eyes out like a little baby! Now, if I was a lawyer or a doctor or an accountant, would I be able to do that?"
I wanted to hear more but we were interrupted by the creaking of the door pushed open by my mother. She told me that it was time for me to go inside and eat dinner before looking at the old man on the porch and saying "Hello Mr. Claybourne, is Jordan bothering you? He has a knack for pushing people's buttons..."
"No, not at all, I was actually telling him a story about why he should do better in school." He winked at me as he said this but my mom didn't notice. "Well Jordan, I guess you will have to hear the rest of the story another time, maybe when you aren't in such a bad mood. Remember, no crying before dinner."
“But I don’t want to go inside. I want to hear what happened next.”
My mom sighed. “Jordan, if you don’t eat now, I’m not going to make anything for you later. It’s either now or you are going to have to find your own way to eat.”
“Fine, I don’t want to eat with you anyw-”
“Jordan is welcome to come eat with me after my story if that is alright with you.” It wasn’t, of course, but I could tell that it was too hard for my mom to say no to the warm-hearted Claybourne. We had been living in the same house since I was born, always across the street from him, and my mom said that she hadn’t ever seen another person go into his house since his divorce. Reluctantly, and without a word, she retreated her head from the cover of the door; saying yes would have meant I got my way.
That night would forever be special to me. I spent the next several hours listening to dozens of Claybourne’s stories about places he’d visited and people he’d met throughout his career. He told me about how he hated school when he was a kid, and how teachers used to spank him with rulers and paddles when he was disobedient. I found myself grateful that I was only punished in phone-calls. I knew that I wasn’t the smartest student and that I didn’t try hard, and in a way, his experiences and stories gave me hope that I could have a life like that too. He told me that I reminded him of the type of kid he was when he was in school, except that he never went to college and that it was very important for me to do so. However, I decided that night that I wanted to be just like him instead. I didn’t want to spend my life studying boring things just to save money, I wanted to see real things and experience everything that I could. I, in a way, wanted to be a janitor. That night I fell asleep on his couch listening to how he was working at Candlestick Park when the Beatles performed their last concert--I never told him that I didn’t know who they were.
I didn’t ever get an opportunity to talk to Mr. Claybourne again because he died several weeks after we met, but I continued to hear about all of the "perks" he had seemed so fond of. Although I only had that one encounter with him, I forced my parents to let me go to his funeral which they were reluctant to do because they thought it was an "unfit place for a child." I don't remember much of the ceremony except for the eulogy.
A man I had never seen before stood in front of the crowd and opened his speech with an anecdote from Claybourne's past. He said that he had first known Mr. Claybourne in the late sixties when he worked as a janitor for MSC (Manned Spacecraft Center) in Houston. The two had apparently been co-workers. The man said that he remembered a certain day when he had asked Claybourne to cover for him so he could be with his wife who was in labor. He said that Claybourne had always been willing to take extra shifts and that he often found him exploring headquarters, which was filled with interesting and unique inventions. However, it just so happened that the day that he had asked Claybourne to fill in for him was July 20, 1969--the day that Apollo 11 landed on the moon. He said that Claybourne had been wandering aimlessly, as he always did, when he noticed that the building was completely void of all life. This had struck Claybourne as odd because MSC headquarters was always flooded with employees and tourists, and prompted him to find out why this was. The man then clarified that Claybourne refused to own a television or watch one because he used to say it "leads to complacency" and had no idea what was going to happen on that day when he stumbled into the control room. Claybourne had told the man later that he was "taken aback" by the intensity and concentration in the room, claiming that although there had been near 60 employees at work, there was complete silence. No one questioned his intentions when he wheeled his cleaning-cart through the control room (after all, he was just a janitor), and within minutes the entire atmosphere had changed into what he had described as utter pandemonium, triggered by voices over the speakers that he had later discovered to be Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Although he couldn't have understood anything that had been going on at the time, the man said that Claybourne had taken an empty seat and sat in silence for the next several hours listening and watching as mission control, "Houston," directed and operated Apollo 11 to the first successful human moon landing in history. The man said that Claybourne had talked of such things as the feeling of accomplishment and victory that he felt emanating from the control room and the overwhelming silence when Armstrong recited his now-famous quote for the first time. I don't remember much else of what the man had said in the eulogy, but now I am certain that Claybourne would have only cared about the story anyway.
School never got easier for me. I didn’t want to wake up early, I didn’t want to do homework, and I surely didn’t want to listen to my teachers. Parent conferences were becoming more routine and I was suspended twice in middle school for trying to skip during lunch. My dad would yell at me and try to force me to work by locking me in my room with only textbooks, pens, and paper, so I used the time to write my own stories about places that I would work when I became a janitor and the people that I would meet. I had grown up on the notion that it was ok for me to neglect school because I convinced myself that I didn’t need a degree or a good job or a lot of money, just like Claybourne.
In the ninth grade I was given an assignment on nuclear crises comparing Chernobyl to Three Mile Island. I wasn’t planning on doing it until I had to, but my mom had long been in the habit of reviewing all of my work and contacting my teachers routinely to stay on top of me. When I told her about the assignment she said that Mr. Claybourne had once told her all about Three Mile Island; he’d worked there four years before it was shut down. He told her that a friend of his was an engineer there and had gotten him the job, which he said had been one of his favorites. She said that he did not have much work to do and that he spent most of his time shadowing his friend who managed the reactors. Claybourne told her that one day while the engineer had been showing him how to operate the reactors for fun, one spontaneously shut down and they had had to take care of it. However, his friend had overlooked something while explaining procedure to him which resulted in the reactor core's exposure and leakage of gas. This had eventually led to nationwide panic from the media and inevitably, the plant's termination. Claybourne was then subpoenaed as a witness when the plant was sued for thousands of damage claims, a case which was soon thrown out by the judge. After hearing this, I ended up writing the essay that night and got my first A since elementary school.
Over the next couple of years, I heard dozens of stories and rumors about Claybourne's endeavors as a professional janitor. I heard things about his attendance in the "Miracle on Ice" game in the 1980 Winter Olympics in New York, his close relationship with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas after he came out of retirement, and various stories of small roles he’d had in movies while working on sets. It seemed that Claybourne had told a story to every person he’d met, and as such, every person he’d ever met had something to say about him.
Junior year was a particularly bad year for me. It was nearing the time when everyone was starting to plan college-visits, take AP exams and standardized tests, and I began to feel left out. On the morning that I found out my SAT scores, another student that I wasn’t particularly fond of snatched my transcripts from my hand and read them aloud for the entire class to hear.
“Algebra I - C. Biology - D. English III - C+. Oh look, you got an A in creative writing, maybe you can write us a cute poem!” The class burst into laughter; I was never one of the more likeable kids. “Let’s read your SAT scores now. Reading Comprehension - 460. Mathematics - 520. Writing - 600. Wow, this is really impressive Jordan. Maybe instead of a poem you can just write me a thank-you note for letting you clean my office in fifteen years.”
“How about I take a crap on your desk and then write an apology note instead? I hope you enjoy that office you dream of because you’ll be stuck in it for the rest of your life while I’m actually doing something with mine!” The room was silent now; I was nervous because I knew he could beat me up but I could still hear his insults resonating in my head.
“What, like that pathetic liar Claybourne?” Everyone knew who he was. “My dad told me that Claybourne worked in his building for twenty years as a janitor before he died. He said that Claybourne was just a crazy old man who made up stories to get people to talk to him. Is that what you’re gunna do? Grow up to clean up s*** for the rest of your life and then make up stories about it so that people won’t ignore you? You fairy-tale sissy.”
My head felt hot and cramped with blood as angry tears welled up in my eyes. I didn’t have anything to come back at him with and I knew that he could easily whoop my ass so I pushed my chair aside and stormed out of the room and into a bathroom stall. I wasn’t sure what to be more angry about: being publicly humiliated and insulted or the things he said about Claybourne. Overwhelmed in my own thoughts, I punched the door of the stall until my hand started to swell, which calmed me down a bit. As I was splashing water into my face to cool off, a security guard entered the bathroom and dragged me to the principal.
That night as I was lying in bed, my bloated purple hand submerged in ice-water, I could only think of what my classmate had said to me. As I replayed the event in my mind, I found myself only concerned with Claybourne. I had lived my life on the notion that everything could work out for me, that I would rather live a full life the way that he did instead of being trapped in a suit. There was no going back at that point; I couldn’t just decide to change and grow up. My GPA was hauntingly low, my SAT’s at best detrimental, and I had no extra-curricular or community service to boost my chances even slightly. My life, as far as I was concerned, was fabricated on a lie--a lie that would perpetuate yet another lie by turning me into exactly what Claybourne had been: A janitor.
That night, I snuck into Claybourne’s abandoned house. I had always wondered why it was left untouched even after his death, and I found out many years later that it was left in his will to a brother that had lost contact with him some time before his death. This brother, the other Claybourne, lived in New York as a district attorney and had a beautiful wife and two children who had also both grown up to be lawyers of the same district. They didn’t talk to Mr. Claybourne, didn’t go to his funeral, and never even looked at the house once it was willed to them. I ran across the street and to the back of his house, so as not to be seen by any of my neighbors, and managed to hoist myself inside after discovering a broken panel on one of his windows. I hadn’t thought about it until I actually got inside, but I realized that the last time (and only time) I had been in the house had been when I was eleven and ate dinner with Claybourne, and that everything was practically identical but for the thick layers of dust and upside-down cockroaches. Suddenly I could only creep, not walk, through the house, careful to be as silent as possible as though Claybourne was sleeping upstairs. I rummaged through all of his belongings, from antiquated photos of his family to drawers of used-up batteries and phone books, and was unsuccessful at discovering anything helpful in confirming his life. After endless hours of exploring I exhaustively collapsed onto the couch, but the cushion felt hard and elevated from the others. I removed it anxiously and revealed a battered binder which had cluttered papers protruding at every end. On the papers seemed to be journal entries, each one with its own story. However, the stories on each page were not the stories I had grown up hearing, rather they were accounts of the people with whom he shared stories! He wrote of the way people reacted to his stories, how they felt about it, how some of them never wanted to hear the end of it and how some never wanted to hear the beginning. I scrutinized each page as though it were a guide, sometimes reading familiar stories and sometimes reading new, even wilder tales. I doted on every word that Claybourne used, both in his descriptions of the stories he told people and their reactions to them. He recorded every smile, tone, and gesture. Some stories conflicted in time, some were just completely unreasonable, but they all had an essence of reality to it that felt honest and right. I eventually ended on the last page which was titled in scribbled capitals “MICHAEL AND JORDAN.”
Tears uncontrollably flowed down my cheeks upon reading the title, but I squinted through them to read more. He described at length not only the story he had shared with me six years before, but every word I had said and each tone of voice my words were emphasized with verbatim. He wrote about how I tried not to laugh about his “stupid joke, as he wrote, and how my mother obviously did not feel comfortable letting me eat dinner with him. He recalled carrying me back to the door of my home and passing my limp body to my father who thanked him graciously for helping me. The whole event had been encapsulated in Claybourne’s words and suddenly I wasn’t angry anymore. I wasn’t afraid of the future and I didn’t care if all, or even some, of his stories were true. It didn’t matter anymore; I realized that the truth wasn’t what Claybourne was trying to relay to me, or anyone else for that matter. His story made me feel better when I was sad, and his stories made everyone feel happier in their own way. That was what he was hoping to accomplish, not fame or recognition. That was what his papers were about—making the stories real and fantastical for all the people who wanted to hear them. The tears were getting stuck in the dimples at the side of my mouth now; I was smiling. I lied down on the couch with the memory of Claybourne and Michael Jordan in my hand and drifted to sleep, much as I did six years before in the same spot.